Port security bill will need shipload of money

KAI RYSSDAL: Congress is meeting all this month. Before lawmakers go home to wrap up their election campaigns. In the Senate today a deal on port security. It's taken a year. And there's still a full vote on the floor to come. The sticking point's a tricky one. How to make sure all 11 million inbound cargo containers are inspected. Marketplace's Hillary Wicai reports.


HILLARY WICAI: Currently just about 6 percent of cargo at the nation's 120 ports is physically inspected. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey pushed for language in the bill that requires all US bound containers be screened when "possible and practicable."

The business lobby isn't happy about it. Andrew Howell is with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
ANDREW HOWELL:"We're opposed to it because we believe it would be so extraordinarily expensive and disruptive to international trade that it would shut down international trade which we rely on each and every day to move goods and products around the world."

But there's not a lot to oppose. There's no deadline attached to making that 100 percent screening happen and no funding for such an effort. Alex Formuzis is a spokesman for Lautenberg.

ALEX FORMUZIS:"This is how Congress works. First you get language authorizing a program and then you go back and get the funds to pay for it. But this is a very good first step at putting this country on a path where all cargo coming into this country is screened."

The bill does establish a pilot program to check all cargo headed to the U.S. at three foreign ports. It also authorizes radiation monitors at 22 of the nation's largest ports to screen for nuclear materials.

But some analysts say the real meat in the bill is a provision that would speed up a system requiring shippers to directly tell U.S. Customs agents what's in their containers. Currently that information goes through carriers and shippers can be reluctant to reveal the whole truth to a third party.

Senate leaders are hoping to pass the bill before Election Day.

In Washington, I'm Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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